Sunday, March 30, 2008

Shiriri Saga #9 A Safe Harbour.

Conover Cove
Shiriri`s cabin lights reflected warmly on the cold wet boards of the dock. The southeast gale reached down into the sheltered bay with stray gusts that stripped the last of the fall leaves from the maples, but only the constant crash of breakers at the bay`s entrance told us the whole story of a dirty night at sea. We were securely tied up in the one really safe bay on Wallace Island and enjoying the luxury of being in the heart of a storm and yet at the same time in a safe harbour.

We had been living on board and traveling around the islands for two months now and the VHF radio weather forecasts helped determine where and when we traveled and in which sheltering bay we chose to spend the night. We did not usually find such perfect shelter as this and had been caught a few times in narrow bays that were well sheltered from the south east gales but exposed when the front had passed and the wind came gusting strongly from the northwest straight into the bay. We had learned to anchor facing out of the bay with a long rope tied to a tree ashore to hold our stern in to the land. This was why we were out here after all: experience is the best teacher and time spent among the islands at this time of year was so much more instructive than in balmy summer conditions.
Panther Point

The gale blew all next day and we enjoyed using our new bright new yellow rain gear for walking the island trails of this deserted provincial park. Once it was the home of the Conovers and we had read his book Once upon an Island describing the building of their island home: something we could relate to as we were then building our own little island homestead not far away on Saltspring. Sometimes we walked south to Panther Point to feel the full force of the wind roaring up Trincomalli Channel and at other times we went north feeling the buffeting of the wind in the trees and undergrowth. After a long dry summer the land drank up the rain gratefully and the mossy rocks glowed emerald green.
Winter landscape.

We read of course, tucked up on the seats in the saloon while the oil heater flickered cheerfully. Heather cooked delicious meals in our new galley. She baked bread in the oven of the propane cook stove. In her spare time she knitted warm wool slippers for our feet which were feeling the winter chill in the lower part of the boat. I researched in sail making books and updated my sketchbook with images of our life that day. Cooking and warm showers added moisture which condensed on the walls and overhead in the cool ends of the boat so it was not all joy, but on the whole we were well pleased with ourselves and so glad we had not tried to go to sea too soon.

After the storm finally passed on, we welcomed the chance to finally take the bulky bags of brand new sails out of the fore peak and start dressing our ship in her new suit. The jib and fore staysail were so much easier to hank to the stays on the long bowsprit when the bow was swung over the dock and the big gaff main and foresail required yards and yards of light line to fasten the sails securely to their varnished spars. We carefully sorted out the complex of halyards, established the correct order where each one belonged on its own particular belaying pin and laid out, measured and cut to length all the various sheets. There was certainly a sense of working from an antique instruction manual compared to that of a modern vessel.
Heather fishes off the dock.

We were well pleased with our choice of a newly built classic wooden design however. It had saved us so much expense along the way because I had been able to make most of what we needed. The new masts for example, had just cost me my labour (which I enjoyed) and a few cans of preservative and cetol varnish. Even more importantly, because we had designed and made everything ourselves, if things should break or wear out at sea or at isolated islands in the Pacific I knew that I could just dig in our odds and ends boxes, haul our my tools and make replacements. Our practical boat would continue to be inexpensive to maintain on the long voyages ahead. She was beautiful in her new wardrobe of white dacron sails.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Force.

Cold rain,sleet, hail and snow. It must be Spring!

Officially it is Spring. The cool winds and occasional snow storms don`t know this yet but the landscape is n`t waiting: a green haze of tiny leaves cloaks the land.

The little pond at the bottom of the top field reflects the fading evening light in ripples: motion in an otherwise still scene. A pair of Mallard ducks are busy catching a last snack before dark. Where will they sleep safely tonight? Probably they will leap into the air and fly across the dark, rocky, tree covered hills to the still faintly reflecting surface of a lake. Soon though, they will be nesting somewhere in our woods and someday will once again lead a troop of ducklings across our lawns.

The salmonberry bushes are now in full blossom, sprinkling the stream side with vivid colour and our orchard looks just about to burst. We worry though, timing is everything and if this cold air mass stays with us there will be no insects for pollinating the apricots and peaches that blossom so early. We will have to fill the breach with a fluffy paint brush lashed to a long pole and, swinging among the blossoms, assist their pollination.

The same force that tucked all to bed for the winter is bringing everything back to life and I feel it too. I have found myself rushing the canoe project to completion and switching to garden work. My heart leaps up with the ducks.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age:
that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
Dylan Thomas.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Salmon run.

I was drawn to the song right away: "Salmon Hymn," by a BC band called As the Crow Flies .It is one of the many really excellent pieces of music written and sung by west coast musicians.

I got the liner notes and read the words:

"The winds have changed the sunburned trees;- vanilla hills grow brittle coats.
A last strong cry to face the winter rise up from their golden throats.
Their songs are leaves upon the water carried on the rivers back. The current draws them fiercely under,-the season of their beauty gone."

Sung a capella, I found it very moving, partly because it deals with end of life transitions that are increasingly within my own province, but also because it is making fresh language out of my much loved familiar landscape. It goes on to sing of the salmon that faithfully struggle up the river and, when all about is dying with the advance of the winter season, carry the promise of new life beyond death: new eggs placed in the river gravel giving the promise of the renewal of life in the spring. The song then offered the final blessing:

"So gather strength like songs in baskets, summer petals, autumn leaves. Join the fools against the current, journey on to glory land."

What appealed to me when I thought about it later was the reaching out to find in a salmon run ( which is common enough as to be ignored by most of our busy citizens) a new way of expressing an old truth usually understood in terms of well established religious imagery carried over here from Europe. Surely, I thought, that is the true function of the arts: to rebirth perennial life stories into local, accessible forms for new generations to participate in.

A few months later we were invited to an annual mid summer "Christmas party" during which a game would be played which involved the exchange of cheap, funny gifts. As I knew a commercial fisherman would be there, and that declining salmon stocks affected his livelihood, I thought of the song and the fertility of the imagery and decided to make a shrine to salmon which would feature a section of stream bed and salmon eggs in the gravel. A shrine for the increase of salmon; wishing them well. To make in more interesting, it would be in kit form: gravel and eggs to be placed by the new owner in such a way that he would be performing the act of the salmon spawning in symbolic form. I must admit though, that I was thinking a visual idea through, and this mock up would be a good way to test it out. Or so I hoped.

Of course in the end it was not really funny and the point was missed ( a pretty esoteric idea, after all) but at least it fitted fairly well among all the gifts that were being traded around. For me, that did not matter because before the party, in doing a trial run with all the ingredients, -placing the gravel, depositing the eggs (orange beads), covering them with more gravel, I had discovered that I was actually performing a powerful ritual. It was dead serious, not funny at all, except perhaps in that I had thought it could be merely a harmless diversion .

I had been reminded that the arts have their roots in that mysterious realm usually approached by religion. There is a lot of spirit here, the knowledge of which reaches back for humans to their earliest beginnings. Its part of our urge to create art, to feel the extacy and, whether we know it or not, to bring new meaning to our societies. We think aesthetics, but we touch elemental stuff.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Shiriri Saga #8 Winter navigation.

We anchored overnight in Burgoyne Bay. It was a quiet night, except for strange noises from Edith who was tied up alongside. We poked our heads outside into the cool still air and found she was rocking and bumping against Shiriri as she objected to a big otter lolling around in her bilges while eating his crab supper. The next morning we woke in the chilly after cabin, got the oil stove lit and as we drank our morning tea, we discussed our plan of action for the day. There was now a dense fog all around Shiriri and we had planned to spend all the short hours of winter daylight threading our way north to Nanaimo for a visit with our daughter Elaine. The radio said it would clear by noon but that would leave too little time for the complicated passage among the Islands. We decided to leave right away and use our new radar for the first time.

The first part was easy, the shores were precipitous and painted clearly on the radar screen. But what were those evenly spaced bright echoes spread straight across the channel? Just before panic stations set in we remembered the electrical transmission lines hidden high overhead in the fog with their big orange aircraft warning balls spaced along them. We motored north through the fog for several hours with our Isuzu diesel chugged cheerfully below in the after cabin. As it pushed us along it also charged our batteries and spewed out lots of glorious dry warmth to chase the condensation away.

Eventually the fog lifted and we found ourselves still on schedule for our passage through Dodds Narrows, a narrow and turbulent passage that would lead us eventually to a safe anchorage behind Newcastle Island in Nanaimo Harbour. The strong tidal currents meant that it was wise to time our passage for slack water when the tides paused briefly from their rushing back and forth. Here we were, leading this free life on our boat and being more focused and more careful about our time, speed and distance traveled than we ever would have been in our old land life that was already fading rapidly into the past. The Shiriris was now our name and navigation was our game.
We spent several days at Nanaimo with Elaine, and Gwyn came up for a visit as well. We used our second dinghy, Rosie the red inflatable to zoom back and forth between our anchorage and Nanaimo. The four HP outboard pushed a full load of passengers slowly across the harbour but with just one it could be coaxed to put Rosie up on plane and zoom along just like a more powerful inflatable.
Finally we motored south again through Dodds Narrows in a cold pelting rain. We took turns steering and warming up over the oil stove. There was so much flotsam in the form of drifting logs that keeping a sharp lookout was tiring. At dusk we anchored in a long narrow north facing cove on Wallace Island secure with a VHF weather forecast of no northerly wind. What a night! It was pitchy black and blowing like stink for most of the night, sometimes right into the bay and even more hair raisingly across the narrow headland. This blew Shiriri`s stern very close to the rocky shore. We found a new use for the radar: we could use it to tell if our anchor was dragging. The new spotlight illuminated the rocky shore just behind our stern.

We survived the night, and next morning moved just down the way to a more sheltered bay. There was a major South-easter forecast and being so tightly anchored in a narrow bay we had discovered could be hair raising.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shiriri Saga #7 Pitter Patter.

I woke in a pitchy dark night to hear a few large raindrops falling on the cabin top close over my head. Heather rolled over beside me and I said " I `m just going to check on deck." thus beginning a regular night time habit at anchor for the sailing years ahead of us.

We were anchored in a narrow cove not so very far from Salt spring Island. At last we were living on board and cruising at first among the islands that were closest to home. We still thought of our home as being behind us on land and not there, moving gently beneath us. It had been a less seamless transition than we could have wished. For Heather there was a feeling that we were isolated from our family and I was having difficulty making the mental transition from boat builder to boat sailor. Of course it did n`t help that so many final building details had still to be brought to completion.

Once I`d climbed up into the cockpit, I looked out over the dark bay from under the hard dodger and was awed by what I saw. Each large raindrop created a quivering moon of phosphorescence as it struck the dark water and there were hundreds of them constantly fading and being renewed.
I could not have experienced this from my bedroom window at home!

The next morning I began another regular habit: I took out a sketchbook and drew that amazing midnight scene from memory and added a little notation. My little sketchbook grew over the years to be the journals that are such a treasure trove now. Today I open the first page to that dark night at anchor and the whole moment of life come alive to me again.

The Eternal Present.

The middle of a moss covered maple tree is the first thing I see each morning through my window when I awake. This morning, little flecks of green tip the tracery of sunlit branches and I can see the small birds that peck industriously among the cracks in the bark. I`ve watched the tree`s seasons come and go for many years and contemplate the passage of time constantly spinning in it`s yearly cycle.

A newly arrived robin flies up singing from the maple and the next second it has been taken by a falcon. In an instant the hawk, with its wings swept back and with the robin calling out and twitching in its talons has continued low across the sloping field, through the trees and out of sight.

Did I see that? It happened in an instant! Yes, a puff of feathers at the point of impact is just beginning to float to earth. So quick as to be almost timeless. In a sense it is timeless, or more accurately, outside of time.

What I have seen so dramatically is the dance of life and death, hunter and hunted that has been played out endlessly since life began to live off other life in the unimaginably distant past of our planet. It is one aspect of the song of life: all of us bound together in an eternal symphony that changes players but never stops. Time loses relevance in such a repeated cycle and I see my own life differently.

I too carry within me the archetypal imprint that is repeated over and over in the intricate pattern of life. I am, in the same moment, all my ancestors and my children and children`s children and on and on. I`m also more than that: I am part of all life, past, present and future, part of this physical planet; the oceans, mountains and the breezes that blow. One leg stands in the primordial seas and the other spans the universe to the stars of the distant future. We are all, like the maple tree, the robin and the falcon, both individuals within time and an unbroken thread that lives always in eternity.

Its still the same old story
A fight for love and glory,
A case of do or die.
The fundamental things of life
As time goes by.
A song.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


Three generations learn to spin.
Tik, Tik, Tik. The spinning wheel turns steadily where it sits before the flickering kitchen fire. It is sheeting down rain outside; a cool wet winter afternoon. Here in the house is warmth, light and companionable industry. I`ve come in from the studio and my own absorbing canoe rebuilding project for afternoon tea and it is lovely to see Heather so involved in her own creative work.
She has recently picked up an old skill again after many years and is deeply involved in washing fleeces, dying, spinning and knitting. Her sweaters are spectacular, but the significance is not completely contained in the end product. Heather is a writer, with two published books, and many poems, short stories and magazine articles. While away sailing she completed two children`s novels, but now we are home again at last, she has stopped writing. Her drive to write has shifted back to work in textiles. She has been very busy in the last few years providing wedding dresses and beautifully designed and crafted wedding quilts for all three of our daughters and is totally involved in the development of two new grandchildren: a return to another level of parenting and the textile creativity of earlier motherhood years.
There is a kind of a relationship though, between writing and the process of making knitted clothing: we spin tales, after all. We take the raw materials of life and knit them together in interesting patterns that must also fit a specific form. We piece the elements together carefully so the threads of our story will not unravel. Heather`s work in wool is beautifully crafted, rich in the subtlety of tones, textures and colours: like her personality and her writing.
The wheel turns, the raw fluffy wool is fed into the spinner and formed into thread. A new creative life is growing on this cold winter afternoon.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Shiriri Saga #6 Masts.

Felling the old masts.

I was sitting on deck in the pale wintery sunshine, eating my lunch and idly poking my pocket knife into a slight pucker in the paint on the wooden mast beside me. My eyes were caressing the splendor of my beautifully polished and painted schooner. Pride of ownership. Months of hard work. Just then the knife blade slid smoothly in to the hilt!

That night in our little cabin in the woods I told my wife Heather the classic "There`s good news and bad news" proposition. Bad, because both big pole masts had dry rot and would have to be replaced, and good, because I had always wanted to make masts!

I walked through our woods, felled three suitable fir trees and hauled them to a large flat space beside our driveway and left them to begin drying out. I went back to work rebuilding the interior of our schooner, Shiriri. There was plenty to do and little time to do it in.

By the time the previously roughly finished cabins shone as beautifully as the topsides it was summer already and time to work on that nagging extra project. First the rotten masts had to come down. Beside our marina, just beyond the ferry dock, was a high government wharf with a small crane for unloading cargo. Some friends came to help and we brought Shiriri alongside at low tide. The wharf towered above us. A bit like tooth extraction, I planned to hook on with the crane and pull the masts up and out! Then began several hours of dementia.

It quickly became obvious that if the wire rope of the crane was attached low enough to pull the base of the masts clear out of the hull, the balance point was too low and they would tip over. Meanwhile, the tide was lifting our boat higher and higher, reducing the vertical distance available to remove the masts. I called a tow truck operator who assured me he had a tall extendable crane. We waited for his arrival. Hoards of people waiting for the ferry came to look and give advise. The tide rose some more. The tow truck operator arrived and got into a heated argument with an old enemy who was parked across the entrance to the wharf. The tide! I desperately mediated their dispute. The car was moved. The tow truck, with a shorter crane than promised and with the still higher tide was still not tall enough. He departed. Most of my friends departed. The ferry left again with the most recent crowd of sightseers. High tide at last.

High tide and my friend Bill the ex-fireman said. "You got your chain saw? You could fell the masts right on to the wharf!" Sure enough, the cabin top was now level with the wharf deck, the crowds were gone and I grasped the brilliance of the idea. I did not need the old masts in one piece after all. With Gwyn, Heather and friend Bill pulling on the rigging to guide the fall, I felled both in quick succession, cut them into several shorter lengths, and loaded them and all their rigging onto a trailer to take home to use as patterns for the waiting trees.

Back at the marina Shiriri looked like she had been through a naval battle, but soon the mast roots were extracted and brought home as well. The time for mast making had arrived. I had been doing my research and had read of a way to speed up the process by using a circular saw to girdle the logs every six inches and then to remove the bark and outer layer of sap wood with an adze. I practiced on the spare third log and then did the two long straight masts. I t worked beautifully and soon I was on to using a drawknife and an electric plane. Eventually I had two beautiful masts, finished this time with a clear varnish so that next time I would see any rot as it started. I had also made a boom and gaff out of the extra log for the new gaff foresail I was designing.

Loading the new masts.

The day we put the masts in began, like the mast extraction day, with a group of friends to lift the heavy spars onto a flat bed truck for the trip to a bay where a real crane and Shiriri waited. This time all went smoothly. The next morning Heather and I returned to reposition all the rigging and motor Shiriri( she now had a new diesel engine) back to our marina home. We were exhausted and talked over our real dilemma as we set up the rigging. A sailing friend, Penni, had seen our exhaustion the previous day and reminded us that we had at first sensibly planned to live on board and sail in local waters for a year to gain experience before sailing out to sea. Here we were single-mindedly plodding doggedly ahead toward an offshore departure in a couple of months. We were trying to stick to an agenda long since skewered by the sheer immensity and unpredictability of the task we had taken on so blithely on that winters day a year and a half ago when we first saw Shiriri.

Guiding the new foremast into place.

There are so many moments when a grand adventure can come unstuck. We knew the dangers of frightening storms or even the interpersonal conflicts that can halt a grand design but had not seen our own particular weakness: that our ability to keep working single-mindedly toward a goal had it own Achilles heel; we could loose perspective. What a relief to finally accept that we were not leaving so soon after all.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Drift Log.

The day I decided to do a long series of ink paintings, I leafed through many years of sketch books looking for a stock of meaningful images. I wanted to keep on painting without breaking my focus and having to pause to look for new imagery. I was surprised to discover how many of my sketches were of beaches: sea, rock, sand and driftwood in all their variations. Perhaps those formative childhood years spent playing on the beach have built themselves into me.

In common with many artists I have a sense that something is painting through me, or that the act of painting is also creating me. I know that when I am in a landscape that I identify with most strongly I feel my personal boundaries expand. The elements are thinking me as I am thinking them. The mind is not contiguous with the brain.

We all know the power of being part of a group`s focus on a common purpose, be it a choir, or a crew or, unfortunately, a mob. We find our individual nature subsumed into a larger entity. It is just a fact of human nature, but it can also be displayed in more heterogeneous communities: myself, the rocky shore washed by the sea, a passing seagull, the flicker of reflected light and the ruffle of breeze in my hair. All these aspects of the world can expand my own nature and act through me and on to the paper.

The battered log in this painting probably fell into the Fraser River during a spring flood and was divested of it`s branches and bark as it tumbled against canyon walls on it way to the sea. It has had all but its most essential form sanded and bleached as it visited many shores in the Gulf of Georgia. When I see it and draw it, we reach out to each other, man and log, ( both a little battered) and record that shared moment on paper.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Shiriri Saga #5 Miss Chick Pea.

Chick Pea sights the Tuamotus.
The whole flock of baby chickens lay scattered around the pen. A mink had somehow got in and in a frenzy had killed them all. All that is, but one we found bitten, but alive. We took her up without a lot of hope, and put her in a box beside the kitchen stove to keep her warm. I went back to the barn with a shovel, waited quietly, and, when the curious mink came back for a second look at his handywork, killed him too. Such an inauspicious beginning , but such a story developed around this bundle of feathers with a brave heart.

Miss Chick Pea, as she called herself, grew up believing she was not a chicken. I would not say she thought herself to be a human being either, perhaps a little better than that: certainly a person. When she grew old enough to peck around outside during the day she would also peck on the window in a friendly but assertive way to be let in for the night. Heather would open the door, lower her wrist, and Chick Pea would hop up and be carried regally to bed. When we bought Shiriri a few months later, and our plans went into high gear we began to think that perhaps she should be incorporated into the flock of older laying hens. Not a success. She would stand at the barn window waiting for anyone to pass by and call beseechingly " Look, you forgot me! There is some BIG mistake!" If we threw handfuls of grain into the pen, the flock would dive for the food, but Chick Pea just flapped her tiny wings and said "Hello,Hello! At LAST you have come for me!'

This insubordination could not continue, steps were taken,... and I made a small and special cage for her personal and private night time security. About this time too we rented out our main house and our log cabin and moved temporarily into a little studio in our forest. That way we could work on Shiriri and have the income to pay for the raw materials that I was turning into the rebuilt interior of our big schooner. Chick Pea was now laying her first eggs in her little house and she easily adjusted to a new wilder world without flower and vegetable gardens to dig in. I began to draw up designs for a seagoing chicken house as it was obvious from remarks dropped among the grain that we were not to be trusted to manage at sea on our own. I imagined how she would act as lookout and spy new islands in tropic seas, or keep watch for us on particularly stormy nights. She could ring the ships bell on foggy days and lay eggs.
On winter afternoons, Heather sometimes walked down to the harbour to check on my progress and then we would drive home for supper. One dark evening on our return, we found the cage empty. No Chick Pea! With foreboding, we remembered hearing a snowy owl hooting that morning, and sure enough, the next morning a little pile of feathers was all there was to show for the death of our unique little chicken. We took it hard, but perhaps because there was only a very small patch of feathers, we continued to think that she was still part of our sailing plans. Later, when I carved Shiriri`s figurehead ( and she was the kind of classic boat that could carry one) I imagined her to be a little Amerindian girl like one of those we had taught in South America. It was suddenly obvious that she should hold Chick Pea in her arms. So you see, Chick Pea got her own way in the end as usual. We were so pleased to have her aboard.
On watch.